Of all the great stars of the music hall, none was greater, more distinguished, and certainly none was as courageous as George Formby (1875-1921).Today, the phrase 'comic genius' is bandied about to describe just about anyone vaguely funny; George Formby really was a comic genius, with a subtle and delicate act, full of perception – sympathetic and gentle – of human frailty, which he himself represented. Severely ill throughout his life with chronic tuberculosis, his painful coughing would ultimately be introduced into his stage act as a comic device. He was born on 4th October, 1875 at 26 Hodgson Street, Ashton-under-Lyne, near Manchester.He was named James, and his mother was the diminutive eighteen-year-old Sarah Jane Booth, who makes only a cross mark in the signature box of the certificate (a typical, and fairly obvious indication of illiteracy). There are no details of a father. The illegitimate James was, as customary, initially given his mother's surname, though as we shall see, it wasn't always to be that straightforward. The following April, in St. Peter's Church in Ashton, Sarah married Frank Lawler, a collier, who is likely to have been his father, and from then, James took the surname 'Lawler'. Frank and Sarah shared a love of booze, and there were constant drunken arguments between them.
As James grew up in this frightening environment, he became a target for their alcohol-induced tempers, alternating with periods of total neglect. In his own words: "Without having to think very hard, I can remember as miserable a childhood as ever fell to the lot of a human creature. Unfortunately, my parents allowed me to go my own way and in a manner I was absolutely uncared for." At the age of nine he became a permanent truant, roaming the streets, searching for sustenance and excitement, and joined a gang, soon becoming their ringleader. The results of Jim's young childhood, much of which was spent wandering the streets, living rough in all weather, and having little food, were severe: not only did he feel alone and unloved, he was under-nourished and weak, and the chest problems that would cause him such agonies and eventually cut short his life had already taken hold. At the age of twelve, he was 'taken in hand' and became an apprentice in an iron foundry.
THE BROTHERS GLENRAY
The shock of long hours of hard work in harsh conditions proved a terrible strain on the weak boy, and the noxious sulphur fumes only exacerbated his chest condition. Inspired by the music hall acts he used to sneak in to watch, James began singing himself, realising he could make a bit of money on the streets with his sweet, high soprano voice. He soon teamed up with another boy who had a pretty good lower, tenor voice as a singing and dancing child duo. They were soon spotted by a Mr Brown, who took them under his wing and 'managed' their careers, christening them 'The Brothers Glenray'. He paid James threepence a week, and the other boy (on account of his 'superior' tenor voice) sixpence.At seventeen James's voice broke and he left the act. He was compelled to return to work, which he didn't like, and could only take it for so long; he decided to have a go at being a solo act. He couldn't sing his soprano ballads any more, but he knew all the dance routines from the Glenray act. Slowly, he began to put together an act of his own, drawing on his old sentimental repertoire, but with what would now be termed 'a comic twist'. A new style of song eventually came about: slower and melodic, sometimes based on hymn-tunes, with witty words and an often surreal character.
It was while working the 'free and easies' that James met his first wife – well, his only wife, legally speaking. Martha Maria Salter was a fellow performer on the halls, a twenty-one-year-old 'vocalist' according to their certificate of marriage, which took place at the Register Office in Halifax, apparently Martha's home town, in August 1897.James gave his name at his marriage as 'James Booth Lawler', and he too is a 'vocalist' on the certificate. He gives as his father's name and occupation – 'Francis Lawler (deceased), Iron Fitter', which is true. James's marriage to Martha has managed to remain undiscovered until now. More on his second marriage - to Eliza Hoy - later.
Denny Clarke, legendary owner of the Argyle Music Hall, Birkenhead, claimed to have discovered James Lawler while he was working at the Hen and Chickens 'free and easy' in Manchester, and signed him for a week at the Argyle at £2 10 shillings (£200). He also pointed out the obvious – that his luck on the halls would improve if he had a more theatrical name – 'James Lawler' didn't really cut it as very cool (though he was billed as 'The Human Cornet' for a while) so he became 'George Formby'.Not long after this, the newly Christened 'George' married the great love of his life, a girl called Eliza Hoy: "It was while working in Wigan that I met Liza, my dear wife and pal. That week I was on a 'perhaps' two pounds which turned out to be 10 shillings (£45), with the result that Liza's father took pity on me, and gave me my Sunday dinner. But he had a bad opinion of 'pros'; this wasn't improved when at the end of the week I ran away with his daughter and got married." He fails to mention one crucial fact – he was still married to Martha. He and Eliza married in the Register Office in Wigan on the 11th August 1899.This time he gave his name as 'James Booth', his rank or profession as 'actor', and, to aid his deception, he invented a completely fictitious father – Frank Booth (deceased), Cotton Mill Mechanic. There never was a 'Frank Booth' of course, and his step-father did not work in a cotton mill. James Lawler was now a bigamist, and from now on, he and his descendants were stuck with 'Booth' as their surname. He would maintain some contact with Martha, still paying her an allowance of £1 (£75) a week in 1911.As George Formby, he continued to struggle for the next two years, in the 'free and easies', getting what engagements he could, with Eliza's sewing skills keeping them going. George became so dispirited, he even thought of giving it all up. But his luck changed, and he soon secured his first Moss Empires Tour, a three year contract which gave him a guaranteed £5 (£410) per week for the first year, going up to £10 (£820) per week for the third year, by which time he was beginning to top the bill. "Then luck really came my way and after several small engagements George Robey recommended me to the management of a Newcastle pantomime, and I got my first big salary – £35 (£2,800) a week."
In August 1906, George began his prolific recording career in London, his first song to be recorded was The Man From Lancashire No. 2, for the Louis Sterling Cylinder Company. He took to the new medium with relish, easily adapting his stage act to the challenging task of performing 'cold' with no audience interaction. For an artist like Formby, who relied heavily on participation with his public, this could have caused his recordings to become stilted and unrepresentative. Instead, he would make asides to the conductor, while keeping up a running commentary to the listener between verses.Often, the song became a mere backdrop to his chat with the listener, which would eventually run through half the song, while the band patiently repeated its two bars of intro to the next verse. Contemporarvy accounts describe his "subtle allusion in a phrase; there were such fine shades of expression in a mere closure of the eyes." His gentle humour was described as being born out of "a sympathetic perception of human vanities and weaknesses." 'John Willie', Formby's parochial Lancashire stage character, permanently puzzled by the ways of the modern, sophisticated world, like a fish out of his Wigan water would travel to London's West End and 'swank about' – the clash of cultures creating some of his finest comic songs, Looking For Mugs In The Strand, Did You See The Crowd In Piccadilly?, and Playing The Game In The West. The ill health which had dogged him since childhood had become severe, and, unable to control his painful coughing while on stage or in the studio, he was forced to integrate this too into his act.
COUGHING BETTER TONIGHT
Eventually, it became one of his trademarks, causing increasing amusement for the audience, as he would stop and cough while the band continued, then once recovered, say to the audience, "Coughing better tonight. I'm a bit tight on't chest – bronchitis." Or, with true gallows humour, "It's not the cough that carries you off, it's the coffin they carries you off in." In 1916, he appeared in a major London revue, Razzle Dazzle at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and was a smash hit, but was unable to appear for the opening night due to a bad attack of his chest complaint, resulting in his being laid up in bed at his Kennington Road digs with a bad haemorrhage. From now on, despite his heroic battling and Eliza's nursing, his health would continue to worsen, to such an extent that the following year Eliza actually cancelled several of his performances.Despite these problems, and his by now rapidly deteriorating health, Formby's career was at its peak. He was earning a staggering amount of money, regularly taking over £250 (£13,000) a week, and able to command up to £50 (£2,500) just for a single performance. As his ability to recover from the regular coughing fits and haemorrhages diminished, he suicidally pushed himself ever harder, determined to earn, and put away, as much money as he possibly could before he could no longer work at all. He was already a fabulously wealthy man, but wanted to be sure his family could survive without him working, either due to his retirement – or worse.
SERIOUS HEALTH ISSUES
The end for George came in 1921. He was appearing in the pantomime Jack and Jill at the Empire, Newcastle.His condition had been worsening for some time, and on Wednesday 2nd February he had a severe coughing fit which had caused a severe haemorrhage in his larynx. He was taken back to their hotel, the Turks Head, and Eliza wired for Georgie to return immediately from Ireland. During the Thursday, George's condition stabilised, and the doctor suggested he should immediately be admitted to a nursing home, for a long rest and proper care, but George refused, insisting on going home. Eliza felt able to cope; she had seen George this ill many times before and nursed him through it, and though unbearably distressing, it didn't occur to her at this point that he was already fatally ill.Once back home in Warrington, Eliza hired an oxygen cylinder and fed him oxygen for an hour and a half at a time. By the following Monday, he was very weak, and he and Eliza had their final conversation, as she remembered: "George said, 'Liza, tomorrow's pancake Tuesday, will you make me one?' I said I will that. He said, 'Make it yourself, don't let any of the servants make it!' Well he died the next morning, pancake Tuesday, I've never eaten a pancake on pancake Tuesday since then because that was the last thing he asked me would I make him. He was very fond of them."
THOUSANDS LINE THE STREETS
A solemn mass was sung at Our Lady's Church, Latchford, near to Stockton Heath. A large crowd had assembled near the church to pay their last respects. After the mass, as the funeral procession made its way towards Warrington, tens of thousands of people lined the streets, with men removing their hats as the hearse passed by; as it arrived in the town, it passed through Marketgate, where more people had gathered, then along Buttermarket Street, lined with children, and from there the short journey east along Manchester Road to the cemetery which bears its name. George Formby had made his will on the 25th August 1906.
LEFT A STAGGERING SUM
At his death in February 1921, he left the staggering net sum of £25,508 18 shillings and 8 pence (£840,000). The will several times refers to 'my reputed wife Eliza Ann Booth otherwise Eliza Ann Hoy'. The will was proven in May 1921, and the beneficiary, written large and clear, was 'Eliza Ann Hoy, Spinster'. Forty years later, in March 1961, another George Formby would be laid to rest, with his father; twenty years after that, in August 1981, Eliza Hoy was buried with the two George Formbys in her life, having outlived her husband by sixty years. George Formby is now unknown to most people, and has the indignity of having 'Senior' tagged on to the end of his name, to distinguish him from his legendary son. But he was a towering figure in the early years of the twentieth century, and his was a classic 'rags to riches' story. His act was, by all accounts, subtle and delicate, with a sad beauty and dark shading entirely lacking in his son's work – there, all is poster colours and bright lights, saucy words and knowing winks. But they are perhaps two sides of the same Lancashire coin, giants as artists, and perhaps even greater as men.
2011 MICHAEL DALYI am indebted to Michael Daly for his kindness in allowing me to re-produce his words within this web page. Michael has created a wonderful website dedicated to George Formby.
Bits Fra Wigan
George Formby Snr - A sample of his recording career